Thursday, June 14, 2012


"Thou wert the morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light had fled"
-Plato "Epigram on Aster" as translated by Shelley in the opening to "Adonais", his lament for Keats.

"Even if we're not in South Bend, I love you all"

She was our bright star. She was the A+ student; the lead actress; the beauty. 
At first we were perplexed as to why she wanted to join our group of 4, soon to be 5. We weren't the bad girls, God no, but we weren't the good girls either. We were too idiosyncratic. And she was very definitely a good girl. But she had her own idiosyncrasies. We soon came to know that.

Here is a memory: It is our first ever weekend away in South Bend. We are stuffed inside her father's car-all five of us-on our way to her house from the one runway airport/train-station. The driver in front of us squeals to a stop, and her father, a doctor of philosophy, sticks his head out the open window and yells at the top of his lungs: "I"ll tell my mother on you, you Communist monkey." That is the type of house she grew up in. That is the house we grew to love. 

For us, South Bend was a place out of time. Nobody told us it was a college town. Nobody told us it was a steel town. It was none of these things to us. To us, five teen-aged girls, it was where we were full of freedom. There we flaunted our whispered secrets and codes. There we flirted with boys and held midnight rendezvous on the dark, quiet, small-town streets. We were perhaps the most cautious group of 16 year old girls you could imagine, but we didn't know that. We were a train ride away from our homes, stripped of our girls' school uniforms, electric and so, so alive.

She didn't lead our pack, despite the fact that she led in every other aspect of her life. And maybe that's why she like being with us- maybe we were the one place she could leave her self-ambition behind; where she could relax into her true self- smart, slightly neurotic and sometimes quirky. With us she could be the type of girl who, when we, despite her protests, stood up on our chairs in the middle of a crowded restaurant, put our hands up in the air and yell, "moo!", would maybe, maybe just crack a smile. And we, in turn, loved that we could make her smile.

Here is another memory: She and I are sitting on the floor of her small kitchen in Baltimore, surrounded by hazelnuts when her husband walks in. She is holding a hammer, and I am picking hazelnut meat from among the shards of shell scattered on the linoleum. We had decided, burgeoning foodies that we were, to make hazelnut biscotti, but all she has in the house were un-shelled nuts and no nut-cracker. So, we grab the hammer and go to work. It takes us about half the night to make those biscotti, certainly much longer than the recipe's allotted forty five minutes. At no point do we turn to each other and say, let's give this up. Instead, we laugh, because life is absurd. And that is how her husband finds us, on the floor laughing at our own stupid bullheadedness.

We decorated her chuppah. That I was reminded of. And I remember it. I remember that it was a pragmatic choice- she couldn't find a florist to do it, so we, her friends, were left to it. But even so, I remember thinking at the time that it was the most romantic thing in the world, to be married overlooking the water, underneath a canopy that her closest friends had strewn with flowers. The whole structure was almost upended into the river by a gust of wind in the middle of the ceremony. That was less romantic.

But I don't remember when that trip was, the trip with the biscotti. I can't remember if it was before her time in the hospital at the University of Chicago, when I raced to her room in between classes and entertained her new husband while she slept by showing him the best gargoyles on campus, or was it after that? Was it winter break? Spring break? Thanksgiving? First year? Second year? I don't know. I can't place it. I still have a photograph from that trip,though. It's a good photograph. We are the two of us standing under a dour sky at the Baltimore harbor. I am in my long wool coat, wearing a hat and scarf that don't quite match. She is stylish in her beret and short coat. Both of us are smiling and hopeful, our arms around each others' shoulders. Behind us, staidly powerful, is the USS Constellation. The photograph freezes the three of us- she and me and that old warship-in a moment; that very moment when we are waiting to set sail.

Another one: We are sitting in vegetarian restaurant in Jerusalem, talking. She is talking about how difficult it is for her being childless in a community full of children. I commiserate with her telling her how difficult it is to go back home; to be single in my late 20's in a community full of married people. In this way we are somewhat the same- we are anomalies.  And it is not really the cruelty that bothers us. People are not cruel. It is simply that both of us cannot stand to be pitied. It is much worse for her, though. I go back only once or twice a year. She lives with it every day. 

She doesn't talk about the physical pain anymore. When I was in college and we were speaking on a regular basis, she used to. She used to tell me about  the treatments, and doctors and trips the emergency room. But then I moved away and we fell out of touch for a few years. When we meet up again for the first time in a long while, she doesn't mention anything. So I don't mention anything. But I know it is still there. I can tell by the small pauses in our conversations; by the slightness of her wrists that have become as twig-like as my own. Beneath her chipper- and she is always chipper when I see her- her eyes are resigned. She has her work, though. And she honestly loves it. She truly sees it as her life's work to bring Jewish students closer to Judaism. In this I disagree with her. But I never doubt her commitment to and love for the young women she mentors. And she, as far as I know, never respects me any less for my disagreement. It makes me feel oddly adult, sitting with her; being in this relationship of mutual respect and care, despite our very different lives. I like it when she visits.

The last time I see her, I take her Mouseline. I take everyone to Mouseline. It has the best ice cream in Israel; maybe even the world. We only have about 20 minutes or so to talk until she is called off to deal with a sick student. We manage to touch briefly on each others' lives- on my disillusionment with academia, and my culinary hopes; on her ventures in public speaking and the possibility that she will move. I think I say to her, as she is leaving, "next time we'll have more time", but I can't remember. I can't remember what I said to her last.

And now she is gone. She slipped away in one moment, far, far away to where she is truly unreachable.

It incomprehensible, this. My sister, picking up that same photo from my trip says, "she was so beautiful." The use of past tense is jarring, wrong. No, no. She is still with us. At her funeral, where I am present via Skype, my only coherent thought is: here we are the five of us, together again after all these years. I see that plain, pine box. It's not our way, but it could use some flowers. She is still with us.

What I wanted for her always, was happiness; for life to show her some small measure of kindness. I kept on waiting for her to turn that corner. I believed she would turn that corner. I hope she knew that.

Here is one last memory: It is the day before her wedding. We are gathered in parent's house in South Bend, as we have gathered so many times before. Her mother sets a pineapple upside-down cake on to the table. It's her favorite. Personally, I never did like the cake, but I eat it anyway. So when I am first introduced to tarte Tatin, it is her I think of. It's the same concept, really- the deep amber caramel spilling over the sides of the cake; the fruit, drowning into the valleys and slopes of it. Tarte Tatin too, is an upside-down cake.

But here's the thing. I have never actually made a tarte Tatin. Eaten it, yes. Made, no.  So it was an adventure making it for the first time. Generally, tarte Tatin is made with apples, or sometimes pears. But it's summer and the apples are pretty grody, as are the pears. Plus, I had a carton full of apricots sitting in my fridge, waiting to be used. So apricot tarte Tatin it was. I found a recipe of Jamie Oliver's that looked good, and off I went.

Almost immediately, I hit snags. The recipes called for puff pastry, but finding puff pastry made of actual butter and not other things is pretty difficult and I didn't feel like going on a wild goose chase. So I made some pate brisee (that's pie dough), which is also a perfectly legitimate base for a tarte Tatin. Well. Jamie's recipe called for thyme. I had no thyme. It also called for splitting open the apricot pits and using the kernels to lend the tart an "amaretto" sort of flavor. Given my previous hazelnut experience, I had no wish to pull out my hammer. I pulled out my almond extract instead. I was already straying pretty far from his original recipe. Then there was the caramel.

One of the things I love about Jamie Oliver's recipes is the way he makes cooking seem effortless and instinctual. It's just a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Anyone can do it. I value that. But as someone who has very little experience making caramel his instructions left a lot to be desired. They were: "simmer the sugar in water until a light golden caramel has formed...check the caramel sauce, if it is ready, remove from heat." There were no indicators other than "light golden caramel" as to what it meant for the sauce to be ready. In other words, my caramel was a disaster. It seized and hardened, melting in some places, crystallizing in others. As I looked down at my new cast-iron pan in dismay I realized there was nothing to be done but to dump the caramel, eat some dinner, regroup and start all over.

Re-thinking my caramel, I remembered a recipe for pear tarte Tatin on my friend Jess's blog. This is Jess's description of the caramel-making process: "Over a medium flame, half a stick of butter sizzled, softened, and sank into a frothy golden puddle. I added sugar, and stirred until the mixture resembled one of those all-natural body scrubs that go for $30 a tub. When the butter and sugar began to color and smell faintly of toffee, I nestled the pears into the pan, gently pressed them into the amber syrup, and dusted them with cinnamon and ginger. The caramel lapped at the edges of the pears and bubbled up between them, all the while deepening in color." That paragraph, my friends (beyond being superb writing) is the perfect guideline for tarte Tatin caramel. It gives you numerous sensory indicators. This, I could do. And I did.

It was 10:45 pm when I finally ate my first piece of tart. I should have known this project would take up the better part of my evening. After all, I embarked on this little adventure with the memory of that night with hazelnuts fresh in my mind.

In the end, my tart was a nice little bastardization of two good recipes. It was wonderful that evening with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and it was wonderful in the morning with yogurt. The tart apricots, the sweet caramel, the taste of mourning.

Apricot Tarte Tatin

Adapted from Jamie Oliver and Sweet Amandine who adapted it from Gourmet who adapted it from Betty Caldwell

7 oz (a scant cup) sugar, divided
1 3/4 oz butter (about 50 grams)
10-12 apricots
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
pate brisee  (like Jess, I used half of this recipe)

1. Preheat the oven to 425. Halve the apricots and toss them with half the sugar and the almond extract. Let sit for 10 minutes or so.

2. In a 9-inch cast iron skillet (or any other similarly oven-friendly skillet), melt the butter. Add the remaining sugar and stir until the mixture turns sandy and golden and smells delicious. Carefully place the apricots into the skillet, cut-side down, covering the base of the pan and pressing lightly on each apricot as you do. Cook until the caramel has darkened to a deep amber color. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

3. Roll out the pate brisee just slightly larger than your skillet. Place the pie dough over the fruit, tucking it in at the edges so that the fruit is blanketed in dough. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

4. Remove from oven. Let cool for about 5 minutes. Then take a plate that is slightly larger than the skillet and place over the top of the pan. Using pot holders, invert the tarte on to the plate. Eat warm, or at room temperature, preferably with vanilla ice cream.

No comments:

Post a Comment